Last weekend was the highly publicized PlayStation Experience event in Las Vegas. Over the course of two days, Sony shared an incredible amount of news regarding what they have in store for the future. A lot of this is still being talked about a week later. There was our first legitimate footage of the upcoming Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Street Fighter V, despite having information leaked one day prior, was officially revealed to be coming to PlayStation 4 and PC only. Square Enix even hyped everyone up and immediately disappointed them when it was announced that Final Fantasy VII was coming to the PS4 as a port of the PC version. Really, the event was a roller coaster of emotion for those who were either watching at home or actually in attendance.
Out of all the news that came out, there was only one that websites couldn’t stop talking about this week. That was the highly anticipated December 9th release of Suikoden II on the PlayStation Network. Sony wisely used PSX to announced this and it was met with immediate jubilation. Suikoden II was even trending on Twitter for a while, which usually doesn’t happen for games that came out back in 1998. Yet Suikoden II isn’t just “a game” that’s 16 years old. It’s heralded as one of the greatest Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) in industry history. It’s also exceptionally rare, with copies running hundreds of dollars online. By releasing this game on the PSN for a much more reasonable $9.99, Sony is giving the public a chance to experience a widely praised title that was sadly overshadowed the first time around. And considering the current state of entertainment, there really isn’t a better time to give Suikoden II a wonderful second chance.
If you’ve never heard of Suikoden II before, I don’t blame you. It first came to North American shores on September 29th, 1999, almost a full year after its release in Japan. You know what came out exactly 20 days before? Final Fantasy VIII. Oh I’m sure you remember that one. Final Fantasy is a flagship franchise for the JRPG genre after all. FFVIII went on to sell millions of copies worldwide to repeated acclaim while Suikoden II went largely unnoticed. The fact that Konami only gave it a limited run didn’t help either. Had Suikoden II been a success, more copies would have been produced, but clearly that’s not what happened.
It’s a shame that this PlayStation classic went down that route too because it contains themes that other, much more successful sources of entertainment, share today. In the simplest of terms, Suikoden II is basically a fantasy mash up of Game of Thrones and Pokémon. The game tells the story of two boys and their roles in a massive war that decides the fate of a nation. Your nameless protagonist (later called Riou in novelizations) is one of them, and the other is his best friend Jowy. Fate brings them into contact with one of Suikoden’s 27 True Runes, sources of immense power and grief, with each receiving half. From that moment on, the two become figureheads in a war that is threatening to throw the entire region into chaos.
Throughout this medieval style journey filled with betrayal, peace treaties, tactical marriages, and immense loss, you recruit people who are known as the 108 Stars of Destiny, each lending their strengths to your cause. Some become trusted fighters while others work in your castle as blacksmiths or merchants, eventually making your home base one of the most revered places in the land. Others even come in to give your castle a little flavor, like a chef who lets you do an Iron Chef style cooking mini game or a dance troupe. Only by obtaining all 108 characters (“catching them all” essentially) can you get Suikoden II’s true ending, and seeing as a lot of people are likely playing this game for the first time, I won’t spoil that here.
Suikoden II’s story is its greatest strength. From the moment your character is introduced as a young soldier to the epic final battle as you lead the Dunan Army to unify a shattered land, the story fires on all cylinders. It’s definitely one of the most epic adventures the PlayStation ever received. The scale of it all is seen perfectly when you engage in massive battles of one army versus another. Your army in particular loses pretty often in the beginning, but as your ragtag group grows stronger, victory becomes even more assured. There’s plenty on the macro level too. The combat is a ton of fun with a rich combo system that’s cool to experiment with. Certain characters work better with others and you have to mix and match to find the one team that works best for you. Then you have the one-on-one duels that are mainly used to accentuate the final battles between your character and the main antagonists. These operate on a rock-paper-scissors style and require absolute concentration to gain victory.
The great thing about Suikoden II is that you don’t need to play the original to understand what’s going on. This is definitely a similarity that is shared between Suikoden and the much more successful Final Fantasy. Unlike the latter though, there is some carry over. Suikoden II takes place in the same general area of Suikoden, which means several characters and locations are the same. Some characters from Suikoden II even continue on in the later released Suikoden III. However, the story hinges on none of this. Certain moments from the past game are referenced, but all is explained in enough detail that you go into every single event with the knowledge you need. If you do have a saved Suikoden game on file though, you get some pretty sweet bonus characters.
I have been a fan of the Suikoden series since my brother decided to buy Suikoden III on the PlayStation 2. I don’t exactly remember why he did that, but I’m glad he did. Suikoden is a truly spectacular franchise that deserves more recognition and Suikoden II is by far the best game. I only came into contact with it a few years ago and have loved it ever since, playing through a good handful of times. What really sucks me into it is how well the story plays into the theme that something big can come from something small. Your main character is only 16 years old, and yet is forced to lead an entire army that decides the fate of a nation. Seeing as this is obviously a very pressure filled situation, the game even gives you an option to respond the same way a normal human would: leave and never look back. There is a point where you can actually abandon the whole cause to live a life of solitude with your adopted sister, effectively ending the game very early. That’s an added touch of realism that the developers didn’t need to put in, but it makes the game that much richer.
Suikoden II wasn’t the most technologically powerful game at the time. When you compare it to Final Fantasy VIII, there really is no contest. One very visibly received a lot more attention than the other. Yet Suikoden II’s story and its gameplay are outstanding enough to warrant playing it. Really, people have been praising this game for years, but its limited quantity prevented many from enjoying it. Then as demand rose, so did the prices for whatever was left, and Suikoden II quickly became the best game that no one could reasonably get a hold of. Now that’s at an end, and I cannot recommend it any higher. If you’re even a mild fan of RPGs, you need to pick this up, and you can get the original Suikoden as well while you’re at it. Maybe with all this attention, Konami might just give us a sixth installment. One can hope…
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.